Hannah, prophetess and mother of Samuel, thanking God | Art for Proper 28B
1 Samuel 1:10 She was deeply distressed and prayed to the LORD, and wept bitterly.
Commentary by Hovak Najarian
Hannah Thanking God, Miniature from the Paris Psalter, Manuscript illumination, 10th century
Image makers of the tenth century were generally awkward in their drawing skills and were successful only partially in their efforts to create an illusion of depth. Although Greek and Roman artists made progress toward creating a likeness of the physical world, the artists of the middle ages tended not to consult classical works. Yet, exceptions could be found among artists in Constantinople where the Paris Psalter was made and the influence of Roman frescos can be seen in some of its illustrations. There were variations, however, and the person that created “Hannah Thanking God” was less skilled than some of the other artists of the Psalter.
In this painting, Hannah’s relaxed stance with bent knee is Greek in origin but the architecture is confusing and much of the painting is filled with an off-kilter perspective. The architecture of the synagogue as well as its shadows, the landscape, and the lines of Hannah’s robe all are slanted to the right. It is very unlikely this was done deliberately but the effect seems to suggest, nevertheless, that all subjects are leaning toward God (who is not in the painting but represented by an arm and hand). In composition, this painting is the simplest of the miniatures in the Psalter and although it tends to lack artistic sophistication it is, nevertheless, a direct and sincere effort to depict a spiritual moment.
Hannah was unable to have children and her husband Elkanah’s other wife, Peninnah, belittled her constantly for this. Her husband treated her well but Peninnah’s irritation went on for years and caused a great deal of grief. When Hannah was praying at the synagogue, Eli the priest misread her emotional state and thought she had been drinking. Hannah explained to Eli she had not been drinking and told him about her sadness and distress. Eli assured Hannah that God would hear her petition for a son and it would be granted.
This simple scene in the Paris Psalter shows Hannah standing outside the synagogue with arms raised in thanksgiving to God for her son, Samuel. How to depict Hannah was not difficult but how to depict God was a dilemma; artists seldom attempted it. Only a hand and a portion of arm were shown usually. It was believed that inasmuch as God was invisible, an image was not possible. Later, and only occasionally, artists depicted God’s face; usually as a bearded old man. In passing years, more of the body of God was shown and by the time of the Renaissance in the fifteenth century the entire figure was being represented. In this painting of Hannah from the Paris Psalter, God’s hand and a portion of a sleeved arm is seen in the upper right hand corner. Rays are extending from the fingers of God as a blessing is being bestowed on Hannah.
In the Episcopal Church, The Psalter (the Book of Psalms) is included in the Book of Common Prayer. During the Middle Ages, however, the Psalter was likely to be a book commissioned by a wealthy lay person for use in a private chapel. As such, it was decorated elaborately and included usually devotional writings as well as miniature paintings that depicted the Passion or Old Testament subjects. The Psalter was used also as a book from which a person could learn to read.